Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the First Nootka Sound Settlement, 1790-1791

Part II of the blog series 225 Years Ago: Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the First Spanish Settlement in Washington State, Núñez Gaona (Neah Bay), 1792

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Because of Spain’s growing concerns about its sovereignty over the Pacific Northwest in 1788 and 1789, the Spanish Government decided to strengthen its naval position at San Blas, in order to mount new expeditions to the Pacific Northwest. In late March 1789, Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, who was then back in Spain, was informed of his appointment as commandant of the Naval Department of San Blas. The next month the king instructed him to select six junior officers to serve under his orders. He chose Manuel Quimper, Ramón Saavedra Guiráldez y Ordóñez, Francisco de Eliza, Salvador Fidalgo y Lopegarcía, Jacinto Caamaño Moraleja, and Salvador Menéndez Valdés. They sailed to New Spain, with a new viceroy, Juan Vicente de Guemes Pacheco de Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, Conde de Revillagigedo, accompanying them.

Portrait of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.
Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Wikimedia Commons

Revillagigedo, Bodega, and his companions reached Veracruz on August 8, 1789. Shortly after arriving, Revillagigedo received a letter from former viceroy Flores informing him that Martinez at Nootka Sound had seized two English ships, the Argonaut and the Princess Royal. Flores added that those ships had sailed from Macao to take possession of Nootka Sound for the king of England, and noted that the two ships and their crews were on their way to San Blas. He urged the new viceroy to relieve him as quickly as possible, not wanting to get involved in the problem. Revillagigedo replied that nothing further should be done until instructions were received from Madrid. Flores responded that the Argonaut would be made ready to sail and that the First Free Company of the Catalonian Volunteers[1] stationed in Guadalajara had been told to prepare to move to San Blas for onward transportation to Nootka Sound. Flores wrote Revillagigedo on August 27, that the Princes Royal, commanded by Jose Maria Narváez, had arrived in San Blas. He said nothing about his order to Martinez to abandon Nootka Sound and return to San Blas.

Flores and Revillagigedo finally met in Mexico City, and Revillagigedo assumed control on October 17. The new viceroy found himself with two matters arising from Martinez’s actions: the release of Colnett along with his men and his ships; and the Royal Order of April 14, 1789, to maintain the Nootka Sound establishment with “honour and firmness.”[2] With respect to Nootka Sound, and still unaware that Martinez had actually left Nootka Sound, Revillagigedo proposed to resupply it using the two captured English ships. In early December, he initiated a stream of orders and detailed instructions to Bodega, advising him that the king desired the Nootka Sound establishment sustained and for this purpose had selected him and his companions to accomplish this under the viceroy’s orders.  Revillagigedo ordered the Concepcion, Princesea Real, and Argonaut to sail from San Blas in January without fail, well equipped, crewed, and armed for war with cannon and munitions. It was left to Bodega to select the commanders. The viceroy also reminded Bodega that he had the 205-ton stores ship Aranzazu, and the San Carlos at his disposal.  Bodega was instructed to use each vessel to survey the coast and islands between Nootka South and north to Prince William Sound, in part to determine whether a Northwest Passage existed.

While plans for an expedition were being made, Martinez arrived at San Blas on December 6 (the Santa Gertrudis under Jose Verdia, arrived shortly afterward), and the news of the abandoning of Nootka Sound became known. Revillagigedo did not alter the substance of his instructions to Bodega for the planned expedition, except to remark that “this news make even more urgent the early departure of the three ships.”[3]

Bodega ordered Lieutenant Francisco de Eliza y Reventa to command an expedition, in the 300-ton frigate Concepcion, to reoccupy Nootka Sound and fortify the settlement at Friendly Cove (Santa Cruz de Nuca) before any other country arrived. Bodega assigned Salvador Fidalgo in the San Carlos and Ensign Manuel Quimper in the Princesa Real (formerly the Princess Royal, seized by Martínez in 1789), to accompany Eliza. It was also decided to send Martinez as second-in-command of the expedition.

The viceroy instructed to Eliza to secure the Nootka Sound site, and once that was accomplished, to send expeditions to survey and chart the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and north toward Cook Inlet. After receiving the reports of Martinez’s actions at Nootka Sound the viceroy sent more directives for the expedition. There was to be no repetition of the events of the summer of 1789. Should any foreign ships call in at Nootka Sound, Eliza was to “proceed with the greatest prudence and discretion and not insist on a careful search, and under no circumstances apprehend them unless they show disrespect for our flag, in which case he will have to use force to contain and punish the insult.”[4] With viceroy’s instructions at hand, Bodega issued his own detailed set of instructions. Eliza had four main tasks: reassert Spanish sovereignty by restoring the establishment; to reconfirm Chief Maquinna’s donation of the site to Martinez; to re-establish good relations with the Indians after the murder of Callicum; and, to renew the exploration of the coast north of San Francisco. Bodega instructed Eliza to remain in Nootka Sound until such time as the viceroy determined he should return.

Because of various problems, the expedition was delayed from departing in January. One of them was getting the Catalonian Volunteers ready to sail. They were understrength and no new weapons had been supplied them since 1776. Bodega was able to obtain arms for them, and their commander, senior captain of the Spanish Army Pedro de Alberni, was able to obtain soldiers to fill their ranks.

On February 3, 1790, the fleet that was sent to Nootka Sound, under Eliza was the largest Spanish force yet sent to the Pacific Northwest. It consisted of the Concepcion, captained by Eliza, San Carlos, captained by Fidalgo, and Princesa Real, captained by Quimper. Also aboard Princesa Real were pilots Esteban Mondofia and Juan Carrasco. Two frigates commanded by Jacinto Caamaño, the Princesa and Aranzazu, followed a short time later.  Accompanying the expedition were 76 soldiers of the First Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia, whose mission was to fortify and garrison the post in the Spanish Fort at Nootka Sound.

The Concepcion and the San Carlos were off Nootka Sound by April 1, but a storm prevented them approaching the inlet. Eventually, on April 4, the two ships anchored at Friendly Cove. The Princesa Real arrived on April 7. When they arrived they found no ships present, and apparently none had been there since Martinez had departed the previous October.

After arriving at Friendly Cove, Eliza welcomed the chiefs to his house and presented them with a number of gifts.  He then ordered the soldiers to construct buildings for a settlement, which he named Santa Cruz de Nuca, and to fortify the harbor, by rebuilding and enlarging Fort San Miguel which had been dismantled when Martínez abandoned it the year before. The Catalonian Volunteers cleared the land, dug wells for drinking water, dug irrigation ditches, and constructed sixteen structures, including a barracks, an observatory, a storehouse, an infirmary, and a governor’s house. They rebuilt the fort, constructed corrals for the animals, and built an oven for baking bread. Alberni undertook the planting of a large vegetable garden to ensure the settlement had food supplies. The wheat and corn he planted yielded scarcely any grains for Spanish sustenance. However, as one diarist noted, “Barley…gave some hope.” [5]  Notwithstanding Alberni’s efforts, the hard labor, a poor diet, and the wet climate weakened the soldiers, who suffered from scurvy, dysentery, and colds.

Meanwhile, the prisoners of Argonaut and Princess Royal had been moved from San Blas to nearby Tepic. Colnett was allowed to go to Mexico City in March 1790, for a personal interview with Revillagigedo. The viceroy, after reviewing Colnett’s numerous letters regarding his crew’s treatment at the hands of the Spanish, agreed to release the Argonaut and crew as well as the Princess Royal. The Viceroy did not acknowledge that the British position was correct, but under orders from Madrid, he informed Colnett that the British vessels would be released and compensation made.[6] The viceroy promised Colnett that the Princess Royal would be delivered to her captain Thomas Hudson in Nootka Sound. It was not until May that Colnett was released, and then on the condition that he was not to “trade in the establishments or coasts of the Spanish nation.”[7] On July 8, Bodega gave Colnett the necessary written permission to repossess the Argonaut. Soon thereafter Conett was able to sail from San Blas in the Argonaut. He headed north to resume trading on the Northwest Coast, wintering at Clayoquot Sound.

After getting settled, on May 4, 1790, Eliza dispatched Fidalgo in San Carlos to Alaska to explore the area, visit the Russian posts, and to learn the extent of the Russian encroachment on Spanish territory. Fidalgo took with him pilots Antonio Serantes and Salvador Menendez, as well as 14 soldiers of the Catalonian Volunteers. Shortly thereafter, Fidalgo sailed out of Nootka Sound and some weeks later he explored Prince William Sound’s eastern shore, anchoring off present-day Cordova, Alaska. The expedition found no signs of Russian presence, and traded with natives in the area. On June 3, they put ashore on today’s Orca Inlet, and in a solemn ceremony, Fidalgo erected a large wooden cross, re-asserted Spanish sovereignty, and named the area Puerto Córdova. Fidalgo continued along the Alaskan coast, reaching today’s Gravina Point, where the same ceremony re-asserting Spanish sovereignty was performed. He then anchored in Cook’s Snug Corner Cove (today Port Fidalgo), where he found no evidence of Russian settlements. On June 15, Fidalgo discovered a port, which he named Puerto Valdez, after Valdés, the Minister of the Spanish Navy. He then sailed west for Cook Inlet. On July 4, the expedition made their first contact with the Russians, on the southwestern coast of the Kenai Peninsula, which Fidalgo named Puerto Revillagigedo. The expedition pressed on to the main Russian settlement of the time at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. Fidalgo entertained the Russians aboard his ship, and then on July 5, conducted another ceremony of sovereignty, near the Russian outpost of Alexandrovsk (today’s Nanwalek). Fidalgo then attempted to return to Nootka Sound, however winds forced him to head directly to Monterey, capital of Alta California. He eventually reached San Blas on November 15, 1790.

The Princess Royal was to be returned to the British at Nootka Sound, but as the port was deserted, Eliza decided to make use of the vessel for an expedition into the Strait of Juan de Fuca while waiting for Colnett to appear. On May 20, Eliza, following up on the voyage of Narváez the previous year, ordered Peruvian-born Manual Quimper to get the sloop Princesa Real ready to sail on May 31 on an exploration of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where he was to sound and chart all possible harbors. At this time, there was still the belief that the strait was the most likely entry to the fabled Northwest Passage through the continent to the Atlantic. His orders were to return to Nootka Sound by mid-August at the latest. No doubt Eliza assumed that Colnett would be back in Nootka Sound by then to reclaim the Princesa Real for Thomas Hudson. On May 31, Quimper sailed with forty-one men, including pilots López de Haro and Juan Carrasco. They sailed first to Clayoquot Sound where Quimper met Maquinna, who had taken refuge with his relative, Wickaninnish, after the murder of Callicum the previous summer. Quimper assured Maquinna that Martinez, though present at Nootka Sound, was no longer in charge. Maquinna soon went home. Quimper stayed at Clayoquot Sound for ten days surveying the sound. After exploring Barkley Sound, Quimper entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Portrait of Manuel Quimper.
Portrait of Manuel Quimper. Wikimedia Commons

After entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Princesca Real continued east, keeping to the northern shore and examining all the inlets on the way. Around the first of July, Quimper crossed the strait and anchored near a spit on the southern shore. He named his anchorage Bahia de Quimper (now Dungeness) and sent Juan Carrasco off in a small boat to explore eastward. Carrasco soon entered a short inlet, Puerto de Bodega y Quadra (Port Discovery) before continuing round a promontory (now called the Quimper Peninsula). Carrasco crossed to present-day Whidbey Island, where he named what he thought had been a bay, Ensenada de Caamaño (today’s Camano Island). He continued north up present-day Rosario Strait as far as Fidalgo Island (Carrasco’s Boca de Fidalgo is present-day Deception Pass). Carrasco then headed back to the ship.

A photo postcard of Neah Bay, ca. 1950.
A real photo postcard of Neah Bay, ca. 1950, much as Quimper saw it in 1790, without the houses and boats. The postcard is from the author’s collection.

Quimper then sailed for Nootka Sound on July 18, this time trying to keep close to the southern shore but tides and winds forced Quimper to crisscross the strait to make progress. On the north shore he discovered Puerto de Cordova (Esquimault Harbor and present day Victoria). Quimper also saw an opening to the northeast but he did not have the time to explore it. He suspected it continued to the north and named it Estrecho de Lopez de Haro (Haro Strait) after his pilot. Back on the southern shore, Quimper set sail westward through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on July 22, Quimper reached the entrance of the strait. At 5pm while at anchor a canoe came alongside with Makah chief Tatoosh. Tatoosh made repeated requests to come to his port, explaining that it was sheltered and there were an infinite number of sea otter skins there. He added that six vessels had previously been there and carried many skins away. Turning down the offer, Quimper sailed 12 miles east to around Clallam Bay to do more exploring. Then on July 24, he anchored at Waadah Island, at the entrance to Neah Bay harbor. Many canoes filled with Makah men and women came to barter fish, berries, and fruit. On July 25, Quimper sent armed canoes with empty casks to get fresh water. These returned and the men informed him they had obtained the water from a stream (probably Village Creek) in front of the anchorage. That day, many canoes full of Makah men and women came out to the Princesa Real to barter. They traded fruits, bear skins, 100 or more pounds of Salmon, and sixteen sea otter skins in exchange for the king’s copper. At sunset they went away to their settlement on the island at the south point of the entrance to the strait.

At 7am on July 26, Quimper sent canoes ashore with half the soldiers and sailors to wash their clothing and that of those who remained on board. Soon thereafter the men on the ship heard yelling coming from the land. Quimper immediately sent the other canoes, with armed men, to give assistance to those on land. Later a soldier was brought back, wounded in the head. He had strayed away from the other men and gone into the woods to eat salmon berries and other fruits. Some Makah grabbed him and gave him several blows with his own cutlass. As he sought to defend himself they fired some arrows at him until he fled, one of them striking him in the face. While this was happening there were Makah around the boat who had come to barter. Quimper seized two canoes in retaliation. When more Makah came to seize the canoes, Quimper warned them to stay away and he fired a swivel gun into the air, causing them to flee. In his journal, Quimper wrote: “All these natives were warlike, treacherous, very thievish, and boast about having killed two captains of vessels which had come to trade with them.”[8] At noon, all the Makah canoes left.

The next day, July 27, Tatoosh sent a messenger in a canoe out to boat to inform Quimper that he had punished the Makah who had wounded the soldier. Quimper made some presents to the messenger, thanking him for the friendship which his chief manifested and delivered to him the two canoes to give to the chief in his name to make him see that he did not wish to take away anything from the Makah. Two days later, Tatoosh, his brother, and son in two canoes came out to the Princesa Real. The brother sold to the first pilot his daughter, age of eight or nine, for a little copper and a small cutlass. They returned to their settlement, having meanwhile exchanged 20 sea otter skins for the king’s copper. On July 30 and July 31 canoes filled with Makah, came out to the ship, and the crew gave them sheets of the king’s copper in exchange for fish and sea otter skins.

Ashore, at 2pm on August 1, Quimper, in the name of Spanish King Carlos IV, took possession of the area, “with all the ceremonies which the instructions prescribe, had a cross planted close to the river, and the bottle buried at the foot of huge pine behind the cross.” The bottle apparently contained a written notice that the land belonged to the king. At 3pm, after Quimper had returned to the ship, three salutes of musketry, at his order, were fired on shore. The sloop answered with twenty-one shots. In his journal Quimper wrote: “I bestowed on this bay the name of ‘Nuñez Gaona.’” [9] This was in honor of Admiral Manuel Nuñez Gaona, a high ranking naval official.

The next day several canoes of Makah came to the ship and they exchanged 22 sea otter skins for the king’s copper. On August 3, the Princesa Real sailed out of the bay and stayed off Koitlah Point (just to the northwest of Neah Bay). In his report to the viceroy, written at San Blas on November 13, 1790, Quimper wrote that on August 4, he set course for Nootka, “after having learned that the Indians of this bay are warlike, daring and thieves…”[10] By August 10, Quimper was close to Nootka Sound, but contrary winds and fog made it impossible to sail the small vessel into the sound. Quimper, who was short of supplies, thereafter sailed for Monterey, which he reached on the first of September. After taking on supplies, he sailed for San Blas, which he reached by November. When the viceroy learned that the Princess Royal was not released, he ordered Quimper to take her to Manila, where it eventually would be taken to Macao, and turned over to the British.[11]

In his reports, Quimper noted that while the winds were tricky and the currents ran with great strength at Nuñez Gaona, the broad bay was sheltered on all sides except on the northwest. The bay abounded in fish, the land seemed fertile, and there were deer, rabbits, foxes, and dogs. The viceroy read Quimper’s reports with interest, particularly the description of Neah Bay’s potential as an alternative establishment should Nootka Sound have to be given up. Quimper had noted that Neah Bay was the only adequate harbor on either side of the strait and that the strait at that point was narrow enough to allow any ships stationed there to intercept foreign ships coming through the passage. The location would serve admirably as a visible symbol of Spanish sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Eliza had remained at Nootka Sound consolidating the Spanish settlement at Friendly Cove. Chief Maquinna, having been assured by Quimper that Martinez was not in charge, returned to Nootka Sound and met Eliza, who gave him further assurances. Maquinna gave to Eliza the land of which Martinez[12] had taken possession, on the condition that the land be   returned to him, as soon as the Spanish left, so that he could establish a village there, as did all of his ancestors during the summers. The site gave access to the ocean for whaling, an activity that was vital to the native population. Thus, it was not surprising that Maquinna and his people frequently asked Eliza when the Spanish were leaving.

Alberni threw himself into preparations for the coming winter of 1790-1791. He operated an efficient bakery, undertook to raise poultry, and aware of the importance of fresh vegetables, gave much attention to his gardens. The winter proved to be most difficult. Heavy rains almost destroyed the vegetable gardens. By January 1791, the Spaniards had begun to suffer great privation. Lack of fresh food caused scurvy and the biscuits, either rotted from the humidity, or were consumed by hordes of rats. To make up for the shortage of fresh foods, Maquinna provided the garrison with gifts of deer meat and fresh fish. Notwithstanding the assistance, Eliza’s men suffered from a variety of ailments including colds, rheumatic pains, and dysentery, and nine men perished during the winter.

James Colnett, after having his Argonaut released to him in July 1790, arrived at Clayoquot Sound in October. By this time Quimper was between Monterey and San Blas with Colnett’s other ship, the Princesca Real. Colnett moved into Nootka Sound on the Argonaut on January 4, 1791, to find the Spanish contingent extremely short of supplies and with many men sick. Even so, Eliza was very hospitable, and assisted Colnett in the repairing of his ship. The British and Spanish helped each other until Colnett sailed for China on March 3, having secured 1,000 sea otter skins. Before leaving Eliza provided Colnett with sufficient stores to reach Hawaii.[13]

While expeditions were taking place in the Pacific Northwest, diplomats were at work in Europe trying to resolve the Nootka Sound controversy. News about the events at Nootka Sound reached London in January 1790. British Prime Minister William Pitt, rejecting Spanish claims, protested Martinez’s actions and requested compensation. The Spanish government refused. Meares arrived in London during April and began a substantial lobbying campaign. The tone of negotiations worsened. King George III was requested to authorize a mobilization for war and the British used its greatly superior naval power to threaten a war. The conflict dissipated during the summer when King Carlos IV, decided that Spain could not go to war without its usual ally, France, then embroiled in the French Revolution. In August, Madrid received the viceroy’s extensive report on the deplorable state of the economy and defenses of New Spain. Thereafter Spain decided to negotiate to resolve the conflict. The Spanish Government informed the viceroy of the negotiations and instructed him that English traders coming to Nootka Sound were not to be molested. Finally, the Nootka Sound Convention was signed on October 28, 1790, resolving the crisis in general. The Convention held that the northwest coast would be open to traders of both Britain and Spain and that the captured British ships would be returned and an indemnity paid. It also held that the land owned by the British at Nootka Sound taken by the Spanish would be restored. The convention, therefore, interrupted the Spanish monopoly in the Pacific North West for the first time in over two centuries.

The Spanish government sent the viceroy four royal orders on December 25, 1790, informing him of the settlement and instructions for him to implement the convention. These would lead to the viceroy deciding to have an expedition to help establish the limits of Spanish sovereignty.

When they were received in Madrid, Quimper’s diaries and charts and what they revealed of the Strait of Juan de Fuca aroused much interest. The king sent instructions to the viceroy saying it was very important to explore the opening that Quimper had sighted at the eastern end of the strait and that he had marked on his general chart as Haro Strait. The king wanted to ascertain whether Haro Strait lead to Hudson or Baffin Bay, or whether it turned to empty into the Pacific or if it ended without leading anywhere. Also, when Bodega got the reports of Fidalgo and Quimper, he urged the viceroy to order Eliza to conduct further expeditions the following summer, this time to thoroughly explore the coast from Mount St. Elias (situated on the Yukon and Alaska border) south to Trinidad Bay in California. While agreeing with Bodega, the viceroy was particularly concerned that the interior of the Strait of Juan de Fuca be given special attention. The viceroy ordered the expedition to “inspect those points which have not yet been well examined, with the view to form an exact general plan of the whole coast.”[14]  The principal areas to be inspected from Mount St. Elias to Trinidad were Bucareli Inlet, Straits of Font and Heceta, bays of San Rafael and Carrasco, Port of Clayoquot, and inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Bodega dispatched the San Carlos from San Blas February 4, 1791, under the command of Ensign Ramon Antonio Saavedra Guiralda. He carried supplies to Nootka Sound and Bodega’s instructions to Eliza for him to prepare one of the ships, either the Concepcion or the schooner Santa Saturnina,(formerly the Santa Gertrudis la Magna), to continue the previous explorations. The San Carlos reached Nootka Sound on March 26. Eliza was keen to follow up on the explorations of the previous year and put Saavedra in charge of the Spanish base while he prepared the San Carlos and the Santa Saturnina for an expedition. Eliza, with Juan Pantoja y Arriga and Jose Antonio Verdia as pilots, would command the San Carlos, while the Santa Saturnina would be commanded by José Maria Narváez, with the pilot Juan Carrasco. Between them the two ships carried ten Catalonian Volunteers. They departed Nootka Sound on May 4. Sailing north the ships encountered strong contrary northwest winds that greatly impeded the Santa Saturnina’s progress. Fearing it was too late in the season to attempt to reach Bucareli Bay or higher, Eliza, after only three days, decided to abandon the plans to explore anything north of Nootka Sound. He turned south and opted instead to head toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Before reaching the strait, Eliza had Narváez carefully chart both Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds. They then sailed to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where it was planned they would meet up at Puerto de Cordova (Esquimault Harbor) inside the strait. The San Carlos reached Puerto de Cordova first on May 29, and, while Eliza waited for Narváez, he sent one of his pilots, Verdia, in a longboat to explore Haro Strait to the north. He returned virtually straight away but, after Narváez appeared on June 11, Narváez in the Santa Saturnina and Pantoja in the longboat of the San Carlos went off again on June 14. Pantoja went through Haro Strait where he charted various islands. Narváez went up Rosario Strait to the east of it. Narváez passed round the north of the San Juan Archipelago and reached a wide expanse of water that was called Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario (Strait of Georgia), being the first Europeans to see that body of water. Meeting at the southern end of the Strait of Georgia, Narváez and Pantoja proceeded up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. Narváez sailed as far north as today’s Nanaimo. Crossing the strait, he anchored off the headland of today’s Point Grey at the entrance to English Bay, thus he was the first European to view the future site of the city of Vancouver. They then reunited with Eliza and the two ships crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca to anchor on June 29, in Puerto de Bodega (Port Discovery).

On July 1, Narváez, with Juan Carrasco in the long boat, took the Santa Saturnina northeast into the Rosario Strait reaching close to 500 N. He sighted the capes at the entrance to Desolation Sound in the distance and the mouth of a large river (the Fraser River) was detected on the eastern shore, and the San Juan Islands were identified and named. The network of islands and bays to the east of the San Juan Islands were explored in detail. Narváez returned along the east coast of Vancouver Island. Narváez rejoined the San Carlos on July 21. On July 24, Eliza had the captain and pilot of the Santa Saturnina, Narváez, and four out of the five soldiers of the schooner transferred to the San Carlos. On July 25, both vessels set sail for the strait, but on account of calm winds came to anchor the same day. On July 26, Eliza departed Discovery Bay and sailed west along the southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passed by Bahia Quimper [Dungeness], and located a harbor, on August 2, which he called Puerto de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles (Port Angeles).

Continuing his westward voyage Eliza reached Bahia de Núñez Gaona on August 8. In his account, San Carlos pilot Don Juan Pantoja y Arriaga, wrote at Neah Bay the bay bottom was of stones and not well for any large vessel to remain anchored in it. “During the days we were at anchor we noted at the entrance a swell which gave us some great and repeated rolls, and on the beach there is a surf. At the east side there is a small island [Waadah island]. About four miles to the west is the Punta de Martinez [Cape Flattery] and close to it a small flat island [Tatoosh Island]. On this we saw a large settlement whose chiefs they call Tutusi and Tataciin.” In his account, Pantoja also wrote “As soon as we anchored many canoes began to come out for trade from the large settlement 4 miles from the bay. From Monday the 8th to Wednesday the 10 the crews have been busy taking wood and water and washing their clothes. On these days the Indians have continued their visits in increased numbers to exchange their sea-otter skins. They brought many but they were dear as they asked a copper plate for a poor skin, and say that the English pay better.” Pantoja also recorded: “While we were anchored in Núñez Gaona numerous Indians assembled. We noticed that they had an abundance of sea-otter skins, as most of them were covered with capes made of them.” “They estimated them at a high value, as they would scarcely accept for one single poor skin [for’ one of our large copper sheets which was 26 inches long, 22 inches wide, and as thick as a real, Giving us to understand that the English, who anchored there and in the Puerto de Lucas [location unknown], paid better prices.” These Indians are “more warlike and daring” than others we have met.”[15]

Later at Nootka Sound, on October 10, Eliza wrote the viceroy “During my stay in the Bahia de Núñez Gaona many canoes of Indians came out from the two settlements at the south of the strait to trade sea-otter skins. Very few however have been exchanged as they did not wish to give more than one small skin for a copper sheet. They told us about and showed us the copper sheets the English were giving them, which are more than two yards long. For this reason I decided not to buy any.”[16]

On the evening of August 11, the two ships set sail back to Nootka Sound. The San Carlos arrived at Nootka Sound August 29. The smaller schooner Santa Saturnina, now commanded by Carrasco, battled weather conditions and finally turned south, arriving at Monterey for supplies September 15, and ultimately San Blas November 9. Meanwhile, once Eliza returned to Nootka Sound, Saavedra resumed command of the San Carlos and sailed for San Blas on October 24.

Eliza and Alberni now set about getting the Spanish settlement ready for a second winter at Nootka Sound. During the autumn of 1791, Eliza expressed fear that his men might not survive another winter with the few provisions that remained. During the year Alberni expanded his horticultural efforts and was able to place the settlement on a better footing for the winter. Alberni even brewed beer using conifer bark in an attempt to prevent scurvy. Fortunately, the winter was not as bad as that of the previous year and food supplies sent from Mexico were of better quality.

Several days before Eliza returned to Nootka Sound, the explorer Alessandro Malaspina arrived at Nootka Sound. Under a Spanish royal commission, during 1786-1788, he had undertaken a voyage around the world. On his return to Spain in May 1788, Malaspina successfully put forward a new exploration plan and he was given the twin 360-ton corvettes that had been built especially for scientific investigation. Malaspina commanded the Descubierta and José Bustamante y Guerra took charge of the Atrevida. On July 30, 1789, the ships sailed from Cadiz and headed down the Atlantic. In late 1789 and through 1790, Malaspina worked his way down the South American Atlantic coast and up its Pacific coast charting and producing maps. By March 1791, he had reached Acapulco, from where he intended to sail to Hawaii. But this did not happen. Before he had left Spain, an old account of a supposed voyage by Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado in the early 17th century through the Strait of Anian in North America near 600 N had surfaced in the form of a book published in 1788. While Malaspina was sailing, the account had received credibility and the Spanish Government believed that the strait may be the Northwest Passage. The Chief Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, the First Count of  Floridablanca, and the Minister of Marine, Antonio Valdés y Fernández Bazán, sent orders to Mexico instructing Malaspina to postpone his plans to sail to the Hawaiian Islands in favor of going north to examine the coast between 590 N and 600 N.

Drawing of the corvettes Descubierta and Atrevida.
Drawing of the corvettes Descubierta and Atrevida by Fernando Brambila – Album fotográfico de la expedición Malaspina, Wikimedia Commons

The Descubierta and the Atrevida sailed north from Acapulco on May 1, 1791. They entered Yakutat Bay on the Alaskan coast on June 27. For the next month, Malaspina followed the coast looking for inlets with potential to be the Northwest Passage. At an inlet with Hubbard Glacier blocking the way further, he named the inlet Puerto de Desengano (Port Deception). Before departing he erected a cairn as a symbol of possession on the south shore. On July 27, Malaspina gave up the search for Madonado’s mythical strait. He put in briefly at Bucareli Sound and reached Nootka Sound on August 12 or 13. Eliza was then away investigating the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so Malaspina was entertained by Saavedra and Alberni. He spent two weeks inspecting the Spanish installation, seeking whatever information the viceroy might find helpful in negotiating settlement of the controversy between Spain and Great Britain.  Felipe Bauza took measurements around the sound and Jose Espinosa and Ciriaco Cevallos travelled through Esperanza Inlet. Their trips showed Friendly Cove was on an island, Nootka Island.

Malaspina left Nootka Sound on August 28, just two days before Eliza returned from his expedition. Malaspina made an attempt to find the mouth of the Columbia River without success and sailed on to reach Monterey on September 11. Shortly after, Carrasco and the Santa Saturnina, who had been with Eliza and had been unable to return to Nootka Sound, entered the port. From Carrasco, Malaspina learned of the discoveries that had been made in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the possibilities for more discoveries to be made. Malaspina reached San Blas on October 9 or 10, continued on to Acapulco, reaching there on October 14.

While Malaspina was exploring Alaskan waters and Nootka Sound, the viceroy was planning another expedition. He intended to send Lieutenant Francisco Antonio Mourelle north in the 46-ton schooner Mexicana, which had been built at San Blas and launched on May 21, 1791. He desired Mourelle to determine, before negotiations commenced with the British regarding the implementation of the Nootka Sound Convention, if a border between Spanish and British territory could be established at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If Núñez Gaona (Neah Bay) or another place on the south coast was best adaptable to Spanish settlements and could serve as the new Spanish base, then Nootka Sound could be yielded with minimum loss to the Spanish. The viceroy, believing that the Strait of Juan de Fuca might prove to be the entrance to the legendary Northwest Passage, also ordered Mourelle to investigate the strait.

The viceroy then turned his attention to the question of negotiations with the British at Nootka Sound to implement the convention and to plans to mount another expedition. Bodega pointed out to the viceroy that it would be necessary to build another ship to ensure that the expedition would have the number and size of ships it needed to impress the British and be able to carry on explorations to determine the limits or boundary between the Spanish and English interests on the North Pacific coast. The viceroy ordered the construction of the twelve-gun 195-ton schooner Activa. She was completed early in February 1792. Bodega’s request that the veteran Princesa be included in the expedition was granted.

Earlier, in March 1791, Revillagigedo wrote Floridablanca proposing to remove their presidio at Nootka Sound to one of the best ports in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. This was probably Neah Bay, based on Quimper’s reports. Six months later, not having received a reply, he repeated the proposal. In late October 1791, still without a substantial reply from Floridablanca regarding vacating Nootka Sound, the viceroy decided to wait no longer. He issued the following instructions to Bodega with regard to Neah Bay:

There is no doubt that we can keep our present establishment of Nootka without    hindrance or interference from anything the English might also erect and build on the opposite northern shore. But considering the just reason for removing any obstacle which would cause discord, disagreement or trouble, the best course seems to me that you abandon Nootka and remove the settlement to the north [sic] shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In this way the complete transfer to the English of the lands they claim to have acquired and purchased from Port Cox or Cayculat [sic] to Nootka and from which it is supposed they were dispossessed by the Spanish will be accomplished.[17]

The viceroy informed Bodega that the Spanish were to return to the British any property Martinez had seized. When this had been done, the Spanish were free to maintain a post at Nootka Sound, but the viceroy favored abandoning the area to the English and building a new Spanish settlement on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which the viceroy envisioned as the future boundary between the British and Spanish.

Following Bodega’s recommendation of November 2, 1791, the viceroy ordered Fidalgo to make ready the Princesa to establish a provisional post at Neah Bay. On November 12, the viceroy wrote Floridablanca that plans were being made for a new examination of the coasts of California and a final settlement of boundaries disputed by the English. The expedition he wrote would proceed to 600 N.

After discussions with Bodega, the viceroy attached a memorandum to his instructions. It emphasized and expanded on three key matters: the turnover of the Nootka Sound establishment and the immediate founding of a new establishment at the Strait of Juan de Fuca; the organization and operation of the new establishment; and the urgent need to explore the coast between San Francisco and 560 N, as well as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, as part of the process of determining the boundary between Spanish and English interests.

The Mexicana was ready to depart on December 1, 1791, but Mourelle was ill and unable to leave. By this time, Carrasco had arrived in San Blas and provided information regarding Eliza’s surveys. Malaspina[18], who had returned to Acapulco, suggested that two of his top officers Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano (with Juan Vernaci as his pilot) and Cayetano Valdés y Flores Bazán (with Secundino Salamanca as his pilot) take over command of the expedition and that two ships be used, not his corvettes which were neither suitable nor available, but the two schooners, the Mexicana and Sutil. Construction at San Blas had begun on the Sutil (a twin of the Mexicana) on September 23, 1791. She was completed November 15. Each vessel, whose shallow draught made them suitable for exploration of inland waters, was almost 47 feet in length and carried a crew of seventeen plus officers. The viceroy accepted the proposal.

Portrait of Dionisio Alcalá Galiano.
Portrait of Dionisio Alcalá Galiano. Wikimedia Commons.

In late December the Sutil and Mexicana, under command of Galiano and Valdés, arrived in Acapulco. Owing to several delays, the expedition did not depart Acapulco until March 8, 1792, reaching Nootka Sound a month after Bodega had arrived. Mourelle’s project of looking for a new port was set aside, and Galiano and Valdés were instructed to explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the waters beyond to see if they opened into a navigable passage to Hudson Bay or James Bay. The viceroy also assigned the Activa and Aranzazu to explore the outer coast from San Francisco north to 560 N.

While preparations for what is often termed the “Expedition of the limits to the North of California,” were finalized Revillagigedo chose Bodega to negotiate with the British, and administer the implementation the Nootka Convention at Nootka Sound. To maintain his status, the 34-gun frigate Santa Gertrudis, the largest Spanish ship in Mexican Pacific waters was made available to convey Bodega north. The Santa Gertrudis was under the command of Alonso Torres y Guerra, who would also be second in command of the mission. The ship had arrived at San Blas from Callao, chief seaport of Peru, on January 15, 1792. A fleet of smaller ships was organized to accompany the Santa Gertrudis, so as to impress the British. The British were understood to be sending a representative from London and the viceroy desired that Bodega be at Nootka Sound first in order to receive the visitors.

Bodega gave Fidalgo his instructions on the eve of his departure from San Blas with the Princesa on February 29, 1792. He was to proceed directly to Neah Bay and erect a small battery. From this base, he was to make a careful survey of all the bays in the Strait of Juan de Fuca where a settlement might be located. Once the best site had been found, he was to select a sheltered spot, one that had a smooth bottom for safe anchorage, space for growing crops, and sufficient water and wood. Formal possession was to be taken in accordance with the prescribed formalities. He was to fortify the site and erect temporary structures to house the sick and to store supplies and ammunition. Bodega cautioned Fidalgo that there was to be no repetition of Martinez’s imprudent conduct in 1789. Any trader venturing into the strait should be asked “with all due courtesy” not to trade south of the settlement.  Fidalgo was particularly enjoined “to show every mark of kindness” to the Indians “even when their ignorance makes them commit some offence.” In sending these instructions to the viceroy, Bodega informed him that inasmuch as “nothing in his instructions opposed the setting up of the establishment of Fuca” and being “certain of its importance and usefulness,” he had decided not “to delay one moment the prompt occupation of the Strait.” Should it be shown that the base would not be needed, it could be abandoned when he returned from Nootka Sound. [19]

The Santa Gertrudis, Princesa, and Activa, left San Blas on February 29, 1792. On board with the Santa Gertrudis were Bodega, his adjutant Félix de Cepeda who understood English; José Mariano Mociño Suárez Lozano, the official botanist-naturalist appointed by viceroy to accompany Bodega; two companions, Jose Maldonaldo, an anatomist-botanist; and Atanasio Echeverria, a botanical artist; and, 43 Catalonian Volunteers. Soon thereafter the two smaller vessels had problems that caused them to return to San Blas. Bodega ordered Salvador Menendez in command of the schooner Activa, and Fildalgo in Princesa to follow as soon as their vessels were seaworthy again. Melendez was able to sail with the Activa on March 15; while Fidalgo, in the Princesa, left on March 23, with a special mission: establishing a settlement at Neah Bay.

Part III, Establishing and Disbanding the Neah Bay Settlement, 1792, will be posted next week.


[1] The Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia was raised in Barcelona in 1767 for service in New Spain, as a part of an effort to improve the defenses of Spain’s overseas empire. Initially recruited from the 2nd Regiment of The Catalan Volunteers arrived in Sonora in May 1768 as a part of an expedition of some 1,200 Spanish soldiers and native allies assembled to quell an Indian revolt. The Company saw service in Mexico and California, and in August 1789, after years of routine garrison duty in Guadalajara, the Company was assigned to duty in the Pacific Northwest in response to the Nootka Crisis.

[2] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 137.

[3] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 145.

[4] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 147.

[5] José Mariano Mozino, Noticias de Nutka: Account of Nootka Sound in 1792, translated and edited by Iris H. Wilson Engstrand (Seattle and London: University of Washington press and Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991), p. 7.

[6] News of the seizure of the English ships reached Madrid sometime in November or early December 1789. The Spanish government informed Revillagigedo that pending a peaceful solution, he was authorized to restore the Argonaut and the Princess Royal to Colnett on the condition that the ships return to Macao and trade no more on the American coast.

[7] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 140.

[8] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, p. 37.

[9] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, pp. 39-40.

[10] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, p. 44.

[11] In 1791, Quimper took the Princesa Real on another attempt to return it to the British. He sailed the vessel from San Blas to the Philippines, stopping at Hawaii on the way. Another Spanish captain would take the ship from the Philippines to China, as the Spanish and British governments had agreed that the ship would be returned to its owners in Macao. Quimper reached Manila in June. By the end of the year, the Princess Royal had been taken to Macao, but the ship was in such poor condition upon arrival that the British agents refused to accept it. Eventually they agreed to accept a small payment in cash instead.

[12] Martinez, not happy with his subordinate role, was relieved to be sent back to Mexico with the store ship Aranzazu when it sailed in July 1790.

[13] When Colnett arrived at Macao on May 30, he discovered that Chinese ports were closed to foreign fur traders, so he sailed instead to Japan.

[14] Mozino, Noticias de Nutka: Account of Nootka Sound in 1792, p. xxxvii.

[15] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, pp. 63, 69, 69-70, 70.

[16] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, p. 53.

[17] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 214.

[18] Malaspina and Bustamente sailed from Acapulco for Manila on December 20, 1791. They would explore the Pacific and South America and eventually returned to Spain on September 21, 1794.

[19] Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire, p. 214.

3 thoughts on “Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the First Nootka Sound Settlement, 1790-1791

  1. Some of this information is not correct. First of all, The ship was called the princesa royal, not princes royal. Also,Francisco de Eliza wasn’t a junior officer at the time, he was a senior officer, in fact the highest.

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